Understanding Variants on ‘60 Minutes’

Seven people in photos stitched together, each standing in the same spot on a rooftop overlooking a cityNew, mutated strains of the coronavirus are causing worry around the world as health officials race to vaccinate as many people as possible. Experts from the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Vaccine Research (CVR) are helping to figure out why the new strains are popping up.

In February 2021, a group led by CVR’s director and professor of microbiology and molecular genetics Paul Duprex published a study showing that SARS-CoV-2—the respiratory virus that causes the disease now known as COVID-19—escapes antibody binding by deleting small bits of its genetic code. The deletions affect the shape of a spike protein on the virus’s surface—a molecule that helps the virus bind to cells in the human body. Once the shape is changed, antibodies can no longer stop the virus from infecting—and the immune response mounted from a vaccine jab may become weaker.

Duprex in a gray shirt with the 60 Minutes logo at the top“That's how viruses change,” said Duprex in an interview on the CBS News program “60 Minutes” that aired March 14. “Those mistakes give the virus just a little bit of a competitive edge.”

The deletions that Pitt scientists found are common in SARS-CoV-2 variants first detected in the U.K. and South Africa—the two “variants of concern” now rapidly spreading in the U.S.

CBS’s chief medical correspondent Jon LaPook traveled to Pittsburgh last month to talk to Duprex and his team about the significance of their discovery last summer—and to understand what emerging variants mean for public health.

In the segment, Ghady Haidar, a physician in Pitt’s Division of Infectious Diseases, discussed a cancer patient with a compromised immune system and then COVID-19 infection that persisted for more than 70 days last summer—far beyond the typical few weeks. “We had no idea at the time that people could still be actively infectious for that long,” he said. “We found out the virus really quickly began to develop all these deletions and mutations throughout the patient’s life.”

To help LaPook and his crew visualize variants, Duprex used a nearly 5-inch-tall 3D model of the coronavirus spike protein—a scientifically precise representation blown up 800 times from its original size on the virus’s surface. The bright-red model was made by Pitt’s Center for Teaching and Learning Emerging Technology Specialist Will Hinson.

Hinson, who has been working at the center since 2004, received a request to print the model of the coronavirus spike on a Monday. By that Saturday, he had the model complete, working into the night to hand-paint the finishing touches on the model that took more than 70 hours to print.

“It was one of the most fun projects I worked on,” said Hinson.

Head to Twitter to see a close-up of the model.